Rev. Olaus Okerson

1883 - 1884


Rev. Olaus Okerson

Rev. Olaus Okerson and Family - November, 1881.

     Olaus Okerson was born in Norra Vram parish, Skåne, Sweden on February 12, 1836.  He had been converted in 1856, was baptized November 28, 1858, and joined the Baptist Church at Broby.  He preached extensively in Sweden and many souls were led to Christ in the old country.  Baptists in Sweden were at that time harassed by the state church clergy, molested by hoodlums, haunted and jailed by the civil authorities.  Okerson was one of many who left for America in increasingly large numbers.  He was ordained to the gospel ministry in  1863.  The following year in the month of May he and his family left Sweden.  After seven weeks of sailing, the ship ran aground off the East Coast of Canada at Anticosti Island.  A steamer picked them up from the island after two weeks and took them to Quebec.  Later they traveled overland to St. Paul, Minnesota. He found some fellow Baptists and being the person he was, arranged for a prayer meeting the first evening of his arrival, expressing his great joy "again to have the opportunity of breaking the Bread of Life to hungry souls." 

     The first year in America was spent at Scandia, Minnesota.  His language deficiency did not bother too much.  English was for special occasions only.  Swedish was spoken usually and was the official language of the church.  He wore two hats; as a preacher on Sunday and a farmer on Monday.  He loved the soil and went around helping on farms with the heavy work.  Most of the men of that day had responded to military duty for Abraham Lincoln's appeal for volunteers in the Civil War.  Okerson's accomplishment in the Minnesota area was considerable.  He organized, and or had a share in organizing, the following churches:  Grove City, Cokato, Stanchfield, Lake Elizabeth, Fergus Falls, Evansville, Minneapolis Bethlehem, Kandiyohi and the Norwegian Church in Pope County,  During the years of 1865 to 1880 there were twenty-six new churches organized in Minnesota.  Okerson had been instrumental in establishing one third of that number.

     Under the direction of the American Baptist Home Missions Society, Okerson was sent to various fields. He was described by a contemporary as a clear thinker and a forceful, convincing speaker, with burning zeal and  ceaseless activity, who considered no obstacles too difficult to over come in his efforts to reach men with the gospel.  Traveling with horse and sleigh through the snowdrifts in Winter, he would stable the horse wherever the roads were impassable and proceed on his skis.  The gospel message must be delivered somehow and he counted it as his special mission to open new fields and do the preparatory work for the ingathering of spiritual harvest.

    In 1876 Okerson was the pastor of the church in Moline Illinois but here he stayed only ten months because the needs of the "regions beyond" were calling him.  

     In 1880, after fifteen years of pioneering missionary work in Minnesota, where he was instrumental in founding nine churches, Okerson decided to go West.  He wrote a letter which appeared in Evangelisk Fiöskrift in which he says, "I shall now direct my steps to Oregon and shall, the Lord willing, start tomorrow.  Such a journey will probably be troublesome at this time of the year, but if the Lord is with me all will go well, and then I hope that many of the brethren are remembering me in prayer."  
    "I do expect difficulties because to travel in a newly settled frontier through dense forest without roads, where our countrymen live widely scattered, many of them unwilling to listen to the word of Truth does not present itself as being easy.  I hope however, that the lord has people to save and children that need shepherding.  For their sakes and my dear Savior's sake I am undertaking the labors that are connected with the presenting of the Bread of Life to these country men who live so far away."
      "I long to announce to the captives that the year of Jubilee has come and that they may again possess their beautiful inheritance.  May the silver trumpet sound during the coming year and be heard throughout the land from east to West, and may many souls be made ready to meet God, and the Bride be prepared for her Bridegroom."
    He considered himself to be a founder of churches rather than a long-term pastor.  He wrote, "I believe  that God has sent me here---and now I go out to break the ground in order that others may come after me to water and reap."

       He had traveled by train from the Midwest to California and wrote, "when we left Minnesota on December 29, 1889, the cold was severe,  it took us two and one-half days to reach Omaha."  From there it took nine days by train to travel to San Francisco.  In San Francisco they spent two days to wait for a steamer to Portland.  During that time he took the opportunity to preach on a Sunday afternoon to Scandinavians in the Swedish Methodist Church and to hear Moody and Sankey.  Then they proceeded to Portland by steamer for two days in heavy seas.  Many were sick.  The third day they navigated up the Columbia River.  On January 12, 1881, he arrived in Portland by steamer from San Francisco.  
    "On arrival in Portland I looked up a brother, H. Shogren, whose hospitality we enjoyed for two days.  Meanwhile I rented a house, with four small rooms, where we are how living." 
    " Through out the whole journey we have clearly seen God's fatherly guidance and watch-care and we are all well."  
    "I have preached part of the time in an Episcopal Chapel and part of the time in a Baptist Church.  On Sundays we have good audience but only a few on week day evenings. At present there is no opportunity to organize a Swedish Baptist Church, but we pray and labor and hope, and the Lord is able to do more than we can ask or think.  I am not able to give accurate information as to the number of Scandinavians that live here, but from my observations there must be about 500 beside a good many who live in the surrounding country."  I have found only four families, one young man and an older lady that belong to our denomination.  Most of these belong to the American Church."    

    Okerson's arrival in Portland, under the sponsorship of the American Baptist Home Missions Society, marks the beginning of ordained Swedish Baptist work in the Pacific Northwest.  

     Okerson visited Seattle, Tacoma, The Dalles, and Spokane in the spring of 1881 on preaching journeys.  Slowly, results began to show from his efforts.  By 1882 the Scandinavian population had increased to about 2600 in Portland.  Meeting housed had been organized in Seattle and Tacoma, and he felt that the time had come to organize for a building in Portland.  In the fall of 1883, he went East to raise money for church property.  

    He wrote in 1884, "after that I bought a lot (on Caruthers Street) in Portland, and also an old house that I moved onto the purchased lot. (See an image of the Caruthers Street church by clicking here.) It was at this time Okerson wrote back East and requested a good brother to take up the work so he might get away to raise money in the eastern states to pay the debts on the churched in Tacoma and Portland. At this time Gustaf Liljeroth was sent to assist Okerson.  Okerson gathered over two thousand dollars, went back to the West Coast, paid the debts, and had as a result, three churches in the three largest cities.  Portland was really starting to grow by then (1880's).  It had become the financial, business, and trade center of Oregon outranking its rivals, Oregon City and Vancouver, Washington.  The Northern Pacific Railroad decided to make Portland the terminus of its line.

   The original church structure was a one-story former school house, thirty by forty feet, with a wooded foundation.  A low platform was built at one end and two rows of benches provided seats.  The room was heated by a large wood stove in the middle aisle.  Funds for the building and it's remodeling were contributed by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1883 and the property was located near what is today S. W. Sixth and Caruthers.  In the later years, the building was used as a private residence and was razed in 1964 to make way for a service station.

     Okerson returned to Temple in the spring of 1884 where he was pastor for a while.  Rev. Okerson died at his home in McMinnville on August 29, 1901, after twenty years of preaching in the Northwest.

  Isaiah 52:7 

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!"  

King James Version

Jesaja 52

Huru ljuvliga äro icke glädjebudbärarens fotsteg, när han kommer över bergen för att förkunna frid och frambära gott budskap och förkunna frälsning, i det han säger till Sion: »Din Gud är nu konung!»

Svenska 1917

    Here and there in due season Rev. Okerson's pioneer efforts brought forth fruit and today ours is but one of many churches that have resulted from his never tiring efforts. 

     When looking back over Okerson's life we may say with a certainty that he saw with prophetic vision the rapid development of the Pacific Northwest cities.  His main focus was to get churches started, traveling by boat, on horseback on foot and bicycle, building meeting houses at his own risk before there were any congregations.  He was an imaginative, arresting preacher.  He had a burning heart and a passion for souls.  In a peaceful cemetery near McMinnville, you will find a granite block bearing the inscription:


    "Beneath the stone lies the mortal body of a choice apostle of Jesus Christ, whose heart burned for the salvation of his countrymen, the Scandinavian pioneers of the Pacific Northwest."


Click on the following Website to see more about life in the early churches.

The following is an article written by one of our earlier pastors, Rev. Charles Asplund 1897 - 1901.  

    It was a memorial address delivered at the grave of Olaus Okerson in McMinville, Oregon on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth May 16, 1936.

Olaus Okerson 

    Rev. Olaus Okerson our Swedish Baptist pioneer missionary, was born in Skåne, Sweden, the 12th day of February, 1836.  After many years of faithful service for the Lord he went to be at home with the Lord, the 29th day of August, 1901, in McMinnville, Oregon, where his remains now rest until the coming of the Lord.
    I have not been able to find any record of Okerson's ancestors, nor of his childhood.  However, we find that he was converted at the age of twenty and baptized, on his confession of of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, two years later, becoming a member of the Broby Baptist Church in Sweden.  At this time the Baptist in Sweden were hunted as criminals and persecuted for their faith and doctrinal beliefs.  Rev. F. O. Nilsson, at this time, had been in exile in America about seven years.
    Olaus Okerson was, as it seams, spiritually born to be a gospel worker.  Very soon after his conversion we find him in the ministry for the Lord. testifying to his fellow-men of what the Lord had done for the salvation of men.  We know very little about his ministerial training, but he, like many of our pioneer preachers, proved to be a true Bible student and became a good expounder of the Word of God.  He was a clear thinker and powerful preacher with a burning zeal for the salvation of men.
    Olaus Okerson was ordained to the gospel ministry in Sweden in the year 1863.  The following year he took passage on a sailing vessel to America to take up missionary work among the Swedish immigrants, but his vessel was wrecked on the Anticost Island..  Nevertheless, the Lord was watching over His servant and he was rescued, like the Apostle Paul, for the purpose of ministering unto others.   After this experience he landed in America with a deeper feeling for salvation of souls.  He immediately planned for his gospel work among the Scandinavian immigrants and began to preach to them on the East Coast.  Like Philip, the Evangelist, as he traveled westward he preached the Word of God wherever an opportunity presented itself, until he at last reached the West Coast with his gospel message.
    Mr. Okerson did some missionary work in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and, possibly, in Iowa.  Most of his pioneer work in the middle states was done in Minnesota, and he became Minnesota's Swedish Baptist "breakplough."  He plowed with the "gospel plough" on new field, and plowed deep to prepare the field for great spiritual harvest, which is still, after 55 years, bringing forth its glorious, spiritual fruit.
    Rev. Okerson was a walking gospel preacher.  He walked most to the time through the woods, in snow or rain, storm or sunshine, the weather never being too bad or the distance too far to launch out to find his people, in order to give them the bread of life.  He conveyed Christ to men, brought many sinners to Christ, and baptized those who believed in the Lord, preparing for church organization in many places --Stockholm, Wisconsin; Lake City, Minnesota; Grove City, Stanchfield, Cokato, Lake Elizabeth, Fergus Falls, Eagle Lake, Minneapolis, and other places, too numerous to be mentioned here.
    He had now prepared the field for others to come and build up New Testament churches and carry on the gospel work on a wider area in the growing field.  New ministers arrived on the field, both from Sweden and our Seminary in Morgan Park, and the places he had opened for church work were well supplied.  Mr. Okerson began to search for new fields for pioneer work.  As a true preacher of the Gospel cannot always go where he pleases, but is led by the Holy Spirit, like the Apostle Paul in Asia Minor, so Olaus Okerson looked for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  He heard a voice from the West Coast calling him, "Come over and help us."  He closed his missionary work in Minnesota the latter part of 1880, and after seventeen years of missionary work extending from the East Coast through the States, he arrived after tedious traveling, at Portland, Oregon, in January, 1881.
    As soon as Mr. Okerson had located himself in Portland he inspected his new field of labor and planned for his gospel work among the Scandinavian people.  In going from house to house, visiting and inviting the people to his home meetings, he had by this time found six Swedish Baptist members in the American Baptist Church.  These received him gladly and became of great help in establishing a Scandinavian gospel mission in Portland.  As he now had his work organized in Portland, he made trips to the surrounding country to investigate where his country people had colonized themselves.  He traveled on foot through the wild-woods and along faint trails, seeking his way to the home of the people.  Some time in the latter part of January, 1881, the same year as he had arrived at Portland, he took a steamboat about 100 miles up the Columbia River to find a few Scandinavians at The Dalles, and preach the gospel to them.
    By this time Rev. Mr. Okerson's presence and missionary plans had become known to the Baptist Convention, which appointed him as their missionary among the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes in Oregon and Washington.  As his field of labor had been enlarged, he began to plan for work in Washington, and arrived in the Spring or Early Summer in Seattle to investigate the possibilities of opening a gospel mission among the Scandinavian people there.  With his clear foresight he could see a great future for that city and also for his mission work.  He gathered at once a few people for his services in the different homes, preaching the Gospel and baptizing the believers.  He bought a city lot and started securing subscriptions in money, lumber and building materials.  A church building was erected and paid for before he had organized a church in the place.  Later a Scandinavian Baptist Church was organized and became a strong center for Scandinavians, especially the Swedish people, from which many Swedish Baptist Churches have been organized in the State.
    While preaching and building in Seattle, he further investigated the field for central places for starting Gospel Mission Work.  Thus he came to Tacoma, where he found a few Scandinavians.  As they responded to his gospel messages, he felt encouraged for more permanent work there also.  He then bought a lot and built the Church that later, when the church organization took place, became the Scandinavian Baptist Church of Tacoma.
    Now, as he had laid a good foundation for the gospel work in Washington, he turned back to Portland, Oregon.
    The work had developed greatly both in Oregon and Washington and the mission field became too large for one man; so he called to the East for help.  G. Liljeroth answered the call, and came and took up the work at Seattle and the Washington field.
    In Portland, where he had his home, Rev. Mr. Okerson began to plan to establish his mission for more aggressive work.  He secured a city lot and found an old house in another locality, which he bought and moved on the lot, rebuilding it into a meeting-house.  But it was hard to shape the old house so it would look like a church and people made jest of Okerson's meeting-house and said, "Okerson vände kyrkan bak-fram," but he evidently had plans to later build a front to it to make it look like a church; he was always planning for expansion.
    Now he said, "The Lord has been good to us; He has blest our efforts in our missionary work and saved souls, and we have the three missions going, Praise the Lord!"  By this time Rev. N. Hayland had answered the call to the Seattle Church and Rev. G. Liljeroth had taken up the work in Portland.  As there was still some debt on the church properties in Tacoma and Portland.  Mr. Okerson started east, without salary, on his own responsibility, to collect the money needed to pay off his church debts.  He traveled through Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, collecting $2,000.00 and on his return paid the church debt.
     As Rev. Okerson was now without a salary to support himself and family, the salary he had received form the Baptist Convention going to the support of the Missionary Pastors in Seattle and Portland, he gad to find some other way to make his livelihood.  He, therefore, bought some cows and started a dairy business in Portland.  What a sacrifice for a pioneer gospel missionary to give both his field of labor and support to other men to take up the work where he had so faithfully labored, laying a great foundation for a gospel success.  I goes to show his meekness and missionary spirit.  
    Mr. Okerson located his dairy on Mt. Zion near Portland.  As there was a winding road up to the top of that mountain and Swedish people, who did not know of Okerson's pioneer gospel work but heard his name mentioned as a milkman. said, "Ah, den Okerson, han gick ormens slingrande väg upp på Berget Zion."  That was part of the reward given him by man.  Even new pastors that came on the field did not like things as they were and the churches that he had built.  Their criticism discouraged him and he became a "forgotten preacher" at the conference meetings.  But he did not lose his missionary spirit.  One time when he delivered milk to his pastor's home, he found him still in bed after eight o'clock in the morning.  He took his pastor to task and warned him that it was not right for a missionary pastor to be so careless in his duties when there were so many souls to be saved and a church that needed care and spiritual edification.
    Mr. Okerson's dairy business came to an end, and he moved to McMinnville , Oregon, to start another business.  But it did not prove successful so he lost almost all he possessed, except the little home in which he lived.  He united with the American Baptist church in McMinnville of which he was a faithful member until he united with the triumphant church in Heaven.  As there were no Scandinavian people in McMinnville and the surrounding country, he had very little opportunity to continue his Swedish preaching, but his soul longed to visit the Swedish field again and preach the gospel to his own people.  However, he was getting old and he had almost walked his legs off during his pioneer work and, therefore, was not able to walk from place to place.  He wondered if he would be able to ride a bicycle; so one day he came to me with a bicycle and wanted me to teach him to ride.  So we went out North 12th Street in Portland, but it did not take long before both Okerson and myself were lying in the dusty street--he was to heavy for me to hold up--and I never saw him on his bicycle again.  Discouraged he said, "My whole machinery is gone; I'll have to give up.  I will go home and rest."  It proves that the spirit of missions continued to live in his heart even though his bodily machinery was broken down.  He did not live very long after that.
    It was my pleasure to meet Olaus Okerson the first time when I came to Portland in the Spring of 1897.  We associated more or less in our homes as well as in church work.  He was as a big brother to me--a man of God--and I learned from him many things that were of great value to me in my ministry to the Swedish Baptist church in Portland, Oregon.
    At one time on a visit to his home in McMinnville, Mrs. Okerson said to me, "I will tell you some news, Mr. Asplund.  Mr. Okerson has begun to preach in English in his old age; he preached in the American Baptist Church in McMinnville the other Sunday when our pastor was away, but he didn't tell me about it so I could go and hear him."  Okerson replied, "Well you always say that you do not understand an English sermon, so I thought it of no use to tell you about it."  Whereupon she answered, "Oh yes, that is true, but when you preach in English I am sure I understand."  It was easy to know why.
    Rev. Olaus Okerson was a great man of God, a true missionary for Jesus Christ, and a grand pioneer for the Swedish Baptist denomination both in the middle states and on the West Coast.  He has laid a Gospel Foundation for others upon which to build a structure that still stands as a monument for his life's service to the Lord and humanity, and it has developed a wonderful, spiritual activity that has been felt both at home and abroad.  Let us see to it that we in our time are building upon this foundation a structure for God and humanity that will stand through eternity.
    We thank God for Olaus Okerson's life and service among our people.
                                                                                                                            Charles Asplund 


Return to Former Pastors Page Return to Church History 1901
Return to Church History 1881 Return to Harley's Notes
Return to Columbia Conference Return to Centennial Quilt